Freezer-Burned: Tales of Interior Alaska

Posted February 6, 2021 at 5:00 am by

“Freez­er-Burned: Tales of Inte­ri­or Alas­ka” is a reg­u­lar col­umn on the San Juan Update writ­ten by Steve Ulvi.

Forever More


With the blush of light clos­ing out a long sub-arc­tic night, among the first day­time crea­tures to engage in food-seek­ing are the clans of Com­mon Ravens, who launch impa­tient­ly from their heav­i­ly branched roosts in tow­er­ing spruce. 

They coor­di­nate their for­ag­ing with var­ied calls, often cavort­ing in pairs as they radi­ate from the heavy canopy.  Swish­ing, pump­ing wing beats, like swim­ming in thick air, their emphat­ic kraak-kraak calls are absorbed by for­est trunks and moss cov­er, echoed by rock faces. 

High­ly adapt­able, they suc­ceed from desert to tun­dra bio­mes on all continents.

They are seen high on Denali and in the Himalayas scroung­ing climb­ing camps.  Beyond the mag­net of com­mu­ni­ty garbage dumps (and high­ly unnat­ur­al pop­u­la­tion den­si­ties), north­ern Com­mon Ravens spread out to scan lake shores and stream cours­es for the leav­ings of deter­mined pre­da­tion or weak­ened demise dur­ing the pro­tract­ed night.  They roost close, silent in the dark, for they know and fear the “tigers of the night”: fero­cious Great Horned Owls, silent in flight with acute night vision, razor talons of cable-steel grip, the apex winged preda­tor of the win­try bore­al forest.

Along the course of a small creek, sim­i­lar to scores of oth­ers with­in patrol range, ear­ly light reveals fox tracks as dain­ty lines of prints between dig­gings along drift wood­piles. Lynx prints stitch the edges of a bent slough, wil­lows bent down with accu­mu­lat­ed snow­fall.  Scat­tered tufts of grey hair and blood spots record a ner­vous snow­shoe hare tak­en hard from the air; impact crater, out­stretched wing prints, drag marks into the air away from the wil­low edge.

Bright white ptarmi­gan flush in low, rapid flight, careen­ing into the next riv­er bar where they cluck and set­tle to jump up to nib­ble wil­low-tips. Open water, rush­ing in black­ness, fogs and crys­tal­lizes on acres of still, red-stemmed brush. The only oth­er stark­ly black things in that sub­arc­tic world dip and swerve and call to one anoth­er over­head.  Search­ing, a pair of ravens seems unfo­cused, with­out a care, but are cer­tain­ly hunger focused.  Anoth­er 35 below zero dawn, pink-orange beneath cobalt blue in the south­east sky, with scant few hours to for­age.  They may fly many cir­cuits, then return to hun­ker down for anoth­er 18 hours of darkness.

For pas­sion­ate observers of nature, birds occu­py cen­ter stage as a com­mon and notice­able pres­ence in our dai­ly lives.   Wher­ev­er you go there they are. Human land­scapes often cre­ate a more diverse mosa­ic of habi­tat, few­er nat­ur­al preda­tors and along with feed sta­tions, read­i­ly increase the rich­ness and diver­si­ty of bird life.  Many of us, in wide-eyed youth, had our imag­i­na­tions opened to the end­less won­ders of the nat­ur­al com­mu­ni­ty of life by the com­mon birds around our homes.  Only in that famil­iar­i­ty with com­mon scenes do the uncom­mon events begin to catch your atten­tion as a nature observ­er.  Some of us gave in to more pri­mor­dial curios­i­ty, a com­plex mix of urges, and could not sim­ply observe. 

As young kids we had per­mis­sion to shoot rau­cous “blue jays” (actu­al­ly Cal­i­for­nia Scrub Jays), from our oaks with BB guns, wrong­ly assured that we were doing nature a favor because they rav­aged oth­er bird’s eggs and nestlings.  Jays and their cousins are eas­i­ly per­ceived as obnox­ious raiders.  Look­ing close­ly at dead birds in hand, jays as well as small­er vic­tims, slow­ly opened my minds-eye to the astound­ing per­fec­tion of birds.  Our aviary of para­keets, ban­ty chick­ens scratch­ing in the yard, and lat­er while rais­ing hom­ing pigeons in a cast-off piano crate, col­ored my inter­ests.  But those scrub jays, along with my efforts try­ing to trap Red Tailed hawks, and a cap­tured Kestrel stoked my curios­i­ty for crow and rap­tor groups. 

Birds thrive in every habi­tat on earth.  It is hard to imag­ine a place, beyond sea depths or very high ele­va­tion, where there are sel­dom birds of any kind.  Even in the frigid depth of severe win­ters in the inte­ri­or of Alas­ka, an end­less mosa­ic of taiga and tun­dra far from the sea, there are about 25 species of res­i­dent birds. From the tiny puffs of Bore­al Chick­adees to the tow­er­ing Great Gray Owl, they exhib­it ele­gant phys­i­o­log­i­cal adap­ta­tions (for no birds hiber­nate) that enable them to thrive in a win­ter dom­i­nant, hard-frozen landscape.

Far more intel­li­gent than dogs, able to imi­tate the calls of oth­er crea­tures, play­ful and social, these black char­ac­ters of the bore­al for­est launch to search with keen eyes, a fine sense of smell, and an uncan­ny recog­ni­tion of small things out of place in the ever-chang­ing nat­ur­al scenes around them.  We had a local clan (I refuse to call a group of ravens as an “unkind­ness”), co-inhab­i­tants real­ly, around our rus­tic home­stead at Windy Cor­ner on the Yukon River.

They joined the small local wolf pack (lit­er­al­ly a ‘bor­der­line’ pack), that was often food stressed to exca­vate fish heads and guts from our gar­den beds in hard times.  The clan always post­ed a look­out to warn of our approach from the cab­in as they inves­ti­gat­ed our skiff, fish racks and beach area again.  Bet­ter hope that strong winds had not un-tarped a pile of bagged dog food or some such.  They seemed to rec­og­nize a rifle in hand, espe­cial­ly after I gave in to frus­tra­tion after days of dry­ing fish being pulled to the ground, to shoot one and hang it in warn­ing.  That crude solu­tion worked for a while but I always regret­ted it and nev­er harmed anoth­er raven.  They often land­ed just beyond the reach of our chained sled dogs to taunt them while find­ing food bits or the end results of canine digestion.

Sure­ly, our ulti­mate fas­ci­na­tion with birds is that most pos­sess the aston­ish­ing free­dom of flight, per­haps the most deeply ingrained envy of the human psy­che. I have dreamed hun­dreds of times since child­hood of being able to con­cen­trate, pump my arms and slow­ly rise twen­ty to thir­ty feet into the air to cruise about, like pulling one­self up in the water from the bot­tom of a pool.  If I ever stum­ble across a dusty old ampho­ra, uncork it and have a genie emerge grant­i­ng 3 wish­es (I am chan­nel­ing I Dream of Jean­nie here…): flight would like­ly be one wish.

The phys­i­cal attrib­ut­es and flight capa­bil­i­ty of thou­sands of species of birds varies depend­ing upon their food/prey pref­er­ences and the chal­lenges in obtain­ing them.  Each has been ruth­less­ly shaped by the unfor­giv­ing cru­cible of nat­ur­al selec­tion lead­ing to pass­ing on DNA and adap­tive phys­i­cal traits.  That con­tin­u­ous whit­tling of form and func­tion, if it had a per­cep­ti­ble sound, might be a very low fre­quen­cy thrum beyond our ken. 

For birds a main evo­lu­tion­ary branch extends with many limbs into the present; scales to feath­ers, bone hol­low­ing, stub­by forelegs to wings (devel­oped from flail­ing arms to climb things?), from well before the cat­a­stroph­ic end of the Age of Dinosaurs. When the Chicx­u­lub mega-aster­oid slammed into the Yucatan Penin­su­la about 66 mil­lion years ago, the 100 mil­lion mega­ton blast eject­ed irid­i­um, gyp­sum and clay into the atmos­phere leav­ing a defin­i­tive geo­log­ic lay­er all over the earth (called the K‑Pg bound­ary) and erased about 75% of all life. 

Most of the incred­i­ble diver­si­ty of dinosaur species died out, but crea­tures that bur­rowed or could dive under­wa­ter (appar­ent­ly includ­ing ear­ly duck and chick­en types of birds) sur­vived along with a few of the small­er, cold-blood­ed dinosaur lin­eages and croc­o­dil­ians.  Among the mam­mals then, some rat-like bur­row­ers that made it through the blast, evolved into count­less arbo­re­al crea­tures, some then into pri­mates, branch­ing for scores of mil­lions of years, from which one line dropped back down to the savan­nah 2–3 mil­lion years ago, to become our bi-ped­al relatives.

Our fuel gulp­ing, noi­some met­al machines can over­come grav­i­ty and sus­tain flight but are incred­i­bly crude, clum­sy and absurd­ly lim­it­ed in com­par­i­son with phe­nom­e­nal birds.  Of course, mod­ern machines far sur­pass the fastest bird-prob­a­bly the Pere­grine Fal­con in a 200-mph stoop-but oth­er­wise fall woe­ful­ly short of the mas­tery and mag­ic of spe­cial­ized feath­ers, ele­gant phys­i­ol­o­gy and incred­i­ble eye­sight among mod­ern birds.

Ravens seem to be the func­tion­al equiv­a­lent of an over­sized pick-up truck with­in the spec­trum of passer­ine birds: plain black primer col­or, Jim­my Durante beak, nei­ther slow nor fast, eat any­thing and tough as nails.  They are also very social, extreme­ly intel­li­gent, mas­ters of mim­ic­ry, play­ful with oth­er species, tool-using, aer­i­al acro­bats, coop­er­a­tive preda­tors and can remem­ber and relo­cate food bits they have cached or items of inter­est with­in a large ter­ri­to­ry.  Up north, the word was that rais­ing one as a pet in the woods was a high main­te­nance, pesky rela­tion­ship often regret­ted. I pre­fer them wild and wooly. Ravens can live to 15 years or so in the wild, per­haps up to 40 years in captivity.

Ravens are risk-tak­ers, brim­ming with con­fi­dence, the “smartest kids in the class”.  They con­tin­u­ous­ly push the enve­lope of being raven, often at their own per­il.  I well remem­ber releas­ing an adult Pere­grine Fal­con from a Yukon Riv­er beach where we had trapped it for band­ing and blood sam­pling.  A near­by raven decid­ed to chase the agi­tat­ed rap­tor as it pumped rapid­ly above the water, away from us.  In a clas­sic aer­i­al dog fight maneu­ver, the shifty fal­con gained enough speed to abrupt­ly veer up to be instant­ly above and behind the chas­ing raven.  In a blink the fal­con fold­ed to thump the raven hard with fist­ed feet. 

As the fal­con perched in the clos­est snag on the far shore, aggres­sive­ly preen­ing and re-lay­er­ing feath­ers dis­turbed by our han­dling, the woozy raven was flail­ing, try­ing to ‘swim’ from the mid­dle of the huge riv­er toward shore.  Like­ly to become a rinsed meal for a Bald Eagle. Ravens make a reg­u­lar habit of harass­ing eagles but once in a while the big birds quick­ly flip over and seize the cheeky, black pest in clutched talons.

There is, of course, a big pile of raven data; from bor­ing lab time, find­ings of cog­ni­tive test­ing and exten­sive behav­ioral obser­va­tion avail­able for these high-pro­file, human-ori­ent­ed birds.  Suf­fice it to say that the sev­er­al rec­og­nized com­mon raven sub­species are in a league all their own, as the largest birds of the ‘song­bird group’, exhibit­ing cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties to solve food puz­zles (like the great apes and dol­phins), learn from obser­va­tion and employ sim­ple tools.

Ravens are also among the most sym­bol­ic, folk­lor­ish and mythol­o­gized birds in human his­to­ry; from the leg­endary realms of the Norse, Tibetan, Irish and Chi­nese to many North Amer­i­can indige­nous tribes, espe­cial­ly in the North West. The vio­lent reli­gios­i­ty, pub­lic exe­cu­tions, bloody wars and plague deaths in Europe cre­at­ed repeat­ed car­nage that sure­ly ben­e­fit­ed ravens.   As a result, these black, gut­tur­al scav­engers were often believed to be har­bin­gers of doom and rest­less spir­its of the deceased. In con­trast, in North Amer­i­can indige­nous groups they were, and con­tin­ue to be, gen­er­al­ly respect­ed for per­ceived spir­i­tu­al pow­ers and obvi­ous intel­li­gence (exem­pli­fied by their roles in cre­ation sto­ries) as well as asso­ci­a­tions with human death.

I like to imag­ine ravens join­ing with humans fol­low­ing herds of Pleis­tocene megafau­na into North Amer­i­ca while the veg­e­tat­ed Bering Land Bridge was dry, cold and blus­tery for thou­sands of years.  I am sure they did.  How­ev­er, genom­ic stud­ies have found a raven group that must have flown over the ‘bridge’ in a much ear­li­er glacial peri­od, about 1.5 mil­lion years ago to even­tu­al­ly thrive in what is now the Cal­i­for­nia region.  This is about the same time our own Homo ergaster rel­a­tives were in group walk­a­bouts (leav­ing fos­silized tracks show­ing a non-arbo­re­al big toe), using more advanced tools and con­trol­ling fire in what is now Kenya, Africa.

Arriv­ing in Inte­ri­or Alas­ka in 1974, we soon dis­cov­ered and devoured sev­er­al newish books by Richard Nel­son detail­ing north­ern Alas­ka native cul­ture and life­ways.  Fore­most was a dry, but sem­i­nal anthro­po­log­i­cal study, describ­ing liv­ing among the Kutchin Atha­paskans who had long inhab­it­ed the upper Koyukuk Riv­er in the Inte­ri­or of Alas­ka.  He titled it Make Prayers to the Raven.  My beginner’s mind found some hand­holds in his descrip­tions, help­ing me to adapt to the far north, while my inter­ests in Atha­paskan cul­ture and ravens around us, were wet­ted for a lifetime.

One fall after­noon a raven three­some cir­cled over me hunt­ing in upland tun­dra, lead­ing me to a pair of cari­bou that were graz­ing out of sight, behind a small hill.  They were reward­ed with gut piles as they hoped to be.  They called in the rest of the clan from a dis­tance to obtain strength in num­bers.  Ravens also fre­quent­ed the sandy river­ine cliffs where in the spring Bank Swal­lows carved out nests by the hun­dreds. Col­laps­ing sand tum­bled eggs and tiny chicks down to the bot­tom to be for­aged.  Ravens also momen­tar­i­ly perched, wings flap­ping to reach in to pluck young out of the nest hole.  I saw three ravens dis­able a molt­ing and flight­less Brant by per­sis­tent­ly peck­ing at its eyes.  Knowl­edge­able peo­ple say the same about fresh­ly birthed cari­bou calves. 

Lat­er, when we moved to Fair­banks, I was exposed to the very large flocks of urban ravens around the sprawl­ing town. “Hitch­cock­ian” flocks flew from scores of conifer roosts to check every dump­ster, aggres­sive­ly expose garbage or edi­bles in the beds of pick­ups and gath­er at road­kill sites.  For the heck of it some col­lect­ed golf balls from the fair­ways and dri­ving range at the course to pile them in the woods. One espe­cial­ly trou­ble­some bird became expert at steal­ing wind­shield wipers from vehi­cles in my office park­ing lot.  In our woodsy enclave just beyond the Uni­ver­si­ty, we were wowed to reg­u­lar­ly see a rare, grey raven born into the neigh­bor­hood clan.

Sad­ly, but entire­ly pre­dictably, raven pop­u­la­tions in the inte­ri­or west near cities and open land­fills, have explod­ed in recent decades and are now being poi­soned or harassed with high-tech giz­mos for a vari­ety of “con­flicts” with urban­i­ty and prey­ing on endan­gered species under­go­ing recov­ery efforts like Desert Tor­tois­es and Greater Sage Grouse.

When we final­ly broke the suc­tion of Alas­ka after 33 years, we went all in on forest­ed acreage here and began the long process of “mea­sure twice, cut twice” in con­struct­ing our last home­stead (hope­ful­ly) on the east­ern slope of Mt. Dal­las.  I felt imme­di­ate­ly reas­sured to see Turkey Vul­tures roost­ing in our sur­round­ing firs, a pair of Bald Eagles and Red Tail hawks nest­ing close by, and a noisy band of the black trick­sters watch­ing our every move.  I con­sid­er them my ‘spir­it birds’ with­out the fluff of New Age silli­ness.  We have long owned sev­er­al works of art depict­ing ravens. Their com­pan­ion­ship refresh­es me and keeps me ground­ed in the nat­ur­al world.   Every day.  Often, I reward them, thus com­plet­ing the cir­cle of respect, with butcher­ing offal and freez­er-burned fish.  Ravens For­ev­er More.

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Categories: Freezer Burned

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